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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

P-books, QR codes, and the marriage of print and digital

When I arrived at my job last Friday, there was a box of books waiting for me to shelve (ah, the glamorous life of an unpaid intern). I opened it up to find a stack of Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, a book due from Scribner in mid-April.

(Okay, so maybe getting to see books before the general public does make me feel kind of glamorous…in a non-glitzy, egghead kind of way.)

Normally the most intriguing part of shelving incoming books is the epic game of Shelf Tetris I have to play to accommodate new titles. But something else about these caught my eye: the spine and back of the dust jacket sported QR codes.

Even if you aren’t sure what a QR (Quick Response) code is, you’ve most likely seen one. They’re those square bar-codey looking things that have been cropping up everywhere lately; now that everyone has a smartphone, we’ve all got a scanner in our pocket that can connect us to any webpage as quickly as it takes us to scan the things. Which is pretty neat.

I know some libraries have been using QR codes on the spines of their books, presumably for nefarious librarian purposes. Some publishers have put QR codes on their book covers that link to websites full of supporting material, like Melville House’s HybridBooks.

The QR codes on the cover of Creating Innovators link to the book trailer. But within the book I found something really, well, innovative: there are codes within the text of the book that will link to websites, videos, and sound. Kind of like enhanced ebooks are supposed to do. But this is print.

Now, a quick Google search showed me this isn’t a brand-new idea. Dr. Sorin Matei of Purdue University started it way back in 2010 with his system, Ubimark. To give you a little idea of how it works, here’s a Ubimark video:

To be completely frank, Tony Wagner and Scribner made a mystifying decision to switch to Microsoft Tag Reader codes, rather than QR codes, within the book. Meaning you have to download a new program to be able to take advantage of Creating Innovators‘ multimedia enhancement. (A handy QR code is provided linking you to this resource. So we couldn’t have just stuck with the one we can already use because…?)

Nonetheless, I find this terribly exciting. As Wagner says in his introduction to the book, the marriage of print and digital combines the age-old technology of the printed word with modern smartphones and QR codes to create a revolutionary p-book. Your smartphone becomes your reading companion, creating a truly multimedia experience as your paper book communicates with your plastic phone.

I also find it a little weird, and I’m kind of on the fence about it.

For one thing, as I’ve probably said before, I’m old enough to remember a time before my family home had a computer in it. (Nowadays, if my brother and I are home, it has five—for four people.) So using a phone as an integral part of my reading experience just feels strange. And distracting. I am likely to scan a code to see a video and end up updating my Facebook status…and then reading an article somebody else linked…and then texting a friend…and oh yeah, I was reading something, wasn’t I?

For another, as the ReadWriteWeb article complained two years ago, the QR codes are pretty intrusive, especially for a reader that isn’t using them.

Overall, though, the potential to link digital and print can offer a tantalizing sort of middle ground for those of us who want the enhanced book but still prefer to read on paper. And still other authors are trying some really out-there stuff with QR codes, so I suspect we have yet to see the true potential of this digital/print combination:

5 comments on “P-books, QR codes, and the marriage of print and digital

  1. Sorin Matei
    March 28, 2012

    Thank you for mentioning our book and initiative… Keep up the good work

    • Claire Schulz
      April 1, 2012

      Thank you for reading! It was exciting to learn about Ubimark and what you’ve been doing to stretch the boundaries of the printed page.

  2. Pingback: Spain invites travelers aboard “reading trains.” What now, Bookmobile? « appazoogle

  3. Sid
    December 6, 2012

    Where the best place on the cover of your book to place the QR Code, Front Cover or back cover, Thanks in advance, Sid

    • Claire Schulz Ivett
      December 16, 2012

      That is an excellent question. In terms of how a book is realistically likely to be displayed in a bookstore, I’d say spine; but the back cover is probably less disruptive.

      In any case, I’m kind of a book cover enthusiast, and I resent even violators and callouts (typically “the #1 New York Times Bestseller!” or the like) so I’d say don’t put it on the cover lest you turn people off. But that may just be me!

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